I’m a writer. Not an author, mind you. A writer. And I have the life of a writer.
This distinction was never more apparent until October 2018, when I overheard some colleagues in the English department office of the high school where I teach, talking about an article one of them had published in a local newspaper.
“I’m a writer, too,” I said. “I’m writing a novel.”
“Really? Have you published anything?” one asked.
I shook my head, instantly regretting that I had mentioned anything about the dream I’d had since I was seven years-old. Being unpublished means I’m not yet an author, but it also feels like having no proof that I’m even a writer. But I know I’m a writer because I have a writer’s life.
I wanted to explain that 22 years earlier, in my other life as an aspiring writer and stay-at-home mom of three, I had written an article that was published in Long Island Parents Guide, a monthly circular that was mostly ads for preschools, clowns for hire, tutors and day camps, with a few articles thrown in for parents in the know.
But I didn’t. That was so long ago, it hardly mattered. And just because I had written an article, it didn’t mean I had any business writing a novel.
Why did I feel so insecure about my writing? Why was I seeking outside validation for my childhood dream? And, more importantly, why hadn’t I finished said novel years ago when I first started writing it?
Life of A Writer: Motivation
When my colleagues continued their conversation into the hallway, I was left with the newest teacher in our department (who was in her early 20s) to contemplate my unfulfilled dreams of being a published writer, and therefore, an author.
The cliché goes that all English teachers are wannabe writers, and in my experience, it’s more true than not.
“I’m actually writing a novel, too,” she said.
“Wow, that’s cool,” I said, slightly jealous that her author career was getting off the ground so young. I was 46 and still in the same position at the starting line.
“Are you doing NaNoWriMo?” she asked.
“NaNoo What What?”
She laughed and explained what it was. I hustled back to my classroom and promptly Googled it.
Within three minutes I was all signed up, excited to have a reason to get back to that novel I was so motivated to write over a decade earlier..
Life of A Writer: Conception
As a fairly new ESL teacher back in 2007, I was shocked by how many of my students said they abhorred reading. Remembering myself as a kid and teen who devoured books, I simply couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that they could wring no enjoyment out of losing themselves in the mind and heart of a character, whose thoughts and feelings can often feel more real than one’s own.
In my classroom, I chose books I thought my students would like, stories about young people facing big obstacles and how they grow strong enough within to overcome them, stories like Oliver Twist and Huckleberry Finn. While some students liked them, the majority did not, so I added texts with Hispanic/Latinx characters to better reflect the identities of my students. We read The House on Mango Street, Buried Onions and Esperanza Rising.
Although more students seemed to enjoy these stories, I realized that what they really wanted to read was a book about a character more like them: a new immigrant, possibly undocumented, adolescent, who speaks both Spanish and English, and who struggles to embrace a new life while desperately missing their old one.
After doing a little research, I concluded that so few books like this existed, my students would only be able to read one if I wrote it myself. (This was the case in 2007. Gratefully, the situation has improved but there is still more catching up to do.)
Therefore, with my students as my inspiration, I started working on a new novel just for them. It was exhilarating because it was a win-win: they would get a story more reflective of their experiences and I would finally achieve my dream. Soon, I had joined a writer’s group and got a lot of positive feedback during our critique sessions.
Then, after a few months, I got distracted by some problems in my personal life and I stopped writing.
The Perfectionism Trap
Alas, my first NaNoWriMo in 2018 was the newest addition to my growing collection of failed writing experiences that qualify as fodder for an Expectations vs. Reality meme. On November 1, 2018, I accomplished uploading the first several chapters of the novel I had begun in 2007, and nothing else.
Several days passed with no writing done, and by November 11, I calculated that I was around 18,000 new words behind if I wanted to achieve the 50k goal. Knowing I would never be able to catch up, I did what any self-respecting perfectionist would do in such a situation: I gave up. Not only that, I further preserved my honor and reputation by refusing to write a single additional word for at least another year.
A New Beginning
Flash forward to NaNoWriMo 2019. Since my first attempt at this annual event didn’t gain me any new words, I was committed to finishing that book the second time around. By the end of November, I had written roughly 15,000 new words. While I wasn’t a winner, the event created some momentum for me, and I continued writing a little every few days for the next couple of months. I also started consuming writing podcasts and books on craft as if they were Oreos.
Truth be told, I consumed plenty of actual Oreos, too.
In January 2020, I stumbled upon an open registration for an online writing course starting on February 1. The course was Rachael Herron’s 90 Days to Done, in which she teaches how to write a novel from start to finish in 90 days. I wanted to register, but I was worried about committing money to the achievement of a dream which had eluded me thus far.
To be honest, I was more terrified of not finishing. Again. Of failing. Again. Of proving myself wrong. (Or was it right?) Again.
The more I thought about it, the more I believed there was a reason I hadn’t heard about NaNoWriMo until 2018. There was a reason I had recently become obsessed with listening to writing podcasts, reading books about writing and Googling all I could about the writing craft. There was a reason I had found a writing course that would be starting in mere days.
The Universe was telling me that moment was the exact right time for me to get serious about my writing or I would die regretting it.
So, I listened to it, trusted it, and followed its advice.
After my first class with Rachael, I decided to start over from scratch, but with the same basic character and plot ideas I had developed thirteen years earlier. I spent several days outlining the plot, fleshing out my protagonist and developing the story and character arcs. I started writing the first new words on February 14, 2020.
I wrote for at least an hour a day, six days a week. To my surprise, I was averaging about 90 minutes and 1800 words per day. I wrote and wrote and wrote.
And then something unimaginably awful happened.
You can read all about it in the next installment of this column. Stay tuned for Episode 2: The Unthinkable Happens.
Anita Ramirez is a writer and teacher who transforms dispassionate teens into lovers of books — one reader at a time. When she’s not teaching Hispanic/Latinx literature and composition to her high school students or linguistics at the college level, she’s revising her first novel, a YA contemporary featuring bilingual characters. She loves the poetry of Pablo Neruda, teen movies from the 1980s and café con leche.